On this day in 1903 American car designer and inventor Preston Tucker was born in Capac, Michigan. Preston is perhaps best known for the Tucker 48, but his legacy in the auto industry reaches far beyond that revolutionary vehicle. Tucker got his start in the auto industry as an office boy for Cadillac before joining the local police force at age 19. As a copper he had his first opportunity to drive high powered police cars and motorcycles, sprouting an interest in automobile development. His mother had him removed from the force after pointing out he was below the agency’s age limit to be an officer, which led to him managing a gas station and working on the Ford assembly line. Later he would selling Studebakers from his gas station. His stints on the police force weren’t over though. Twice more he would become an officer. During his last spell as an officer he was banned from driving police cars because he used a torch to cut a hole in the dashboard of one to let engine heat into the cab during winter.
Selling Studebakers led to him becoming the sales manager for Chrysler in Memphis and then regional sales manager for Pierce-Arrow in Buffalo, NY. He later returned to Detroit where he worked in sales for Dodge. In the 1930s Tucker would head to Indianapolis every year to watch the Indy 500, as he had a huge interest in race cars. It was there he met Harry Miller, maker of more Indy 500 winning engines than anyone at the time. The two joined forces in 1935, forming Miller and Tucker, Inc in 1935 to produce race cars. While building racers for Ford Tucker met a number of auto executives, including Louis and Arthur Chevrolet, giving him numerous meaningful connections in the auto industry.
In 1937 Tucker ended up in the hospital with appendicitis. While bedridden he took a keen interest in news magazines that theorized war in Europe. The threat of conflict inspired him to develop a speedy combat vehicle. Renderings and detailed data of the future war machine garnered interest from the Dutch government, but by the time the prototype was ready Germany had already invaded the Netherlands and the Dutch no longer needed the vehicle. Tucker showed his armored prototype, which featured a patented Tucker Turret, to the US government. The vehicle, which could reach speeds in excess of 115 mph, was simply too fast for them. The heads at the Defense Department did like the mechanical turret he developed though and it was put into production on vehicles such as PT Boats, B-17 Bombers and B-29 Bombers. In the years that followed Tucker even worked with American-Bantam on the design for the original Jeep.
Following the war Tucker wanted to create a completely new car for a new world, whereas major automakers, such as the Big 3, were in no hurry to change their ways. Tucker’s car first appeared in Science Illustrated in 1946, much to the excitement of consumers. After securing a production facility in Chicago in 1947 by raining $17 million Tucker and his team were essentially set to begin production. Including the original prototype there were 51 Tuckers built. They featured such innovations as a padded steering wheel, safety glass, independent springless suspension, a roll bar in the roof, a center cyclops headlight and a 334 cubic inch aircraft engine.
How Tucker got to that point became a point of contention. The Security and Exchange Commission placed Tucker under investigation for the way he raised funds, which included selling Tucker accessories and dealerships before the car was ready for production. He eventually faced a grand jury trial brought on by the SEC. In 1950 he would be found not guilty on all charges, but the negative press and numerous lawsuits from people who had purchased dealerships left him riddled with debt His dream to produce a radically futuristic car was crushed.
Following the trial nearly all of the Tucker Corporation’s assets were auctioned off, but Tucker was given one of his cars and his mother received another. Tucker wasn’t done in the auto industry though. He teamed up with several inventors in Brazil in an effort to build a new car, the Carioca, but it never saw production. After returning to the USA from Brazil in 1956 Tucker was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died of pneumonia as a complication of the cancer in December of that year and was buried at Michigan Memorial Park in Flat Rock, Michigan.